This is it, the culmination of the Japan article series detailing my honeymoon there in September! You’ve surely noticed in the first five parts had certain words in bold, and, in case you hadn’t figured it out by now, those were the best things about the particular towns and/or days. But here, I’ve got two truly special experiences – the Studio Ghibli museum, and a Japanese concert we went to. There are also my thoughts about Japanese food and the costs of a trip there. Enjoy!
All pictures in the article have been taken by me and my wife. Click on them to see them in bigger size.
If you’re European (or rather, I imagine, not Asian), the first thing you’ll think about Japanese food is that it’s strange. It really is quite unlike anything you’ve ever eaten elsewhere in the world. A lot of people just give up there. Several people from our group did and kept looking for sandwiches and other familiar things to cling to. We embraced it, though. We gave it a chance, and we were rewarded. Of course, people are familiar with sushi, udon and soba will also not be too different from regular noodles to them (except for being more soupy). But that’s about where the familiar stuff ends.
The age yuba manju in Nikko was perhaps the single most favourite typically Japanese thing I ate in Japan. I already mentioned it tasted a lot like one of my favourite Bulgarian foods, the mekitsa (except with interesting filling), so that was surely a factor, but I’ll remember it forever. I also mentioned the amazing (and cheap!) purins, but that’s hardly a typically Japanese dessert. I’m just a big fan of crème caramel in general. All in all, most of the desserts were quite nice. They were a change from the typical sugary stuff we eat here. The heavy use of rice (mochi, anyone?) and azuki beans for desserts makes for a less sweet, but incredibly memorable taste. They also like green tea-flavoured desserts. I must say I started enjoying the taste quite quickly. Their ice cream isn’t particularly special, certainly nothing close to the Italian gelato.
The Japanese just love tofu… It’s something I can hardly stand, and even my stay in Japan couldn’t make me a fan. At Fukuchiin, since they eat and offer to guests entirely food of plant origin, there were probably like 5-6 different kinds of tofu, and only one that our host called “Tofu Tomodachi/Friend” tasted somewhat well, the others were just “edible.” The tempura (breaded and vegetables) at Fukuchiin was excellent, though. Japanese pickled vegetables are also very good, quite different from European ones. And they really like sweet potatoes, which I enjoyed too – both on desserts and as part of regular dishes.
The sushi is obviously amazing, though I’d say the sushi I’ve had here in Bulgaria isn’t much worse. It’s not rocket science, obviously. But they have a MUCH bigger variety, their sea being rich of all kinds of fish, shrimps, squids, octopuses. It goes without saying they cook fish and other seafood deliciously… Even some of the seaweed in soups wasn’t too bad. Miso soup is weird, though, especially the tiny clams variety. But the beef we had, in the Kobe steak and the Hida beef sukiyaki, was also marvellous (especially the former). The pork tonkatsu was alright. They make some nice salads, too, they’re more heavy on cabbage, soy sprouts, and lettuce, as opposed to expensive (in Japan) vegetables like tomatoes.
Aside from purins and Bulgaria yoghurt, you can find lots of other cool stuff at convenience stores and supermarkets. Another favourite of mine is the curry bread (カレーパン), and the cheap salads you can also get dressings to your liking for are great if you want to keep food expenses low. Some supermarkets even offer freshly cooked, warm food, and pretty much every convenience store has microwave ovens to heat your food up for you. There are also plenty of bakeries at various places, including train stations. We ate some truly delicious things at bakeries, too.
As far as drinks go, I must start with beer. Japanese beer is not particularly different from European beer. Asahi is the most popular brand, Kirin is also big. Both are good. Sake, or rice wine, as you may want to call it, has a taste that takes a little getting used to. It’s not bad, but I prefer the regular grape wine that I’m used to. The sweet potato brandy called “shochu” that I mentioned earlier was considerably more interesting, and I regret not trying some other kinds of hard liquor a little. But there’s always next time. There are countless vending machines in Japan, and, aside from water, the soft drinks you can get from them almost universally suck, including the otherwise fascinating green tea ones. I did enjoy getting the Dragonball sodas for the pictures on the cans, but their taste isn’t very good, to be honest. Speaking of green tea, you MUST drink macha if you visit Japan. It’s a really specific taste, and I wouldn’t say I incredibly enjoy it, but it’s quite worth it.
THE STUDIO GHIBLI MUSEUM (三鷹の森ジブリ美術館)
The museum is located in a really nice neighbourhood called Mitaka (三鷹), and, to reach it, after getting off the train, you pass a wonderful river with a lot of beautiful greenery around it. It was also in a nice park. We reached it and smiled seeing Totoro at the entrance, only to have a kind security officer explain to us that they were sold out for the day. We asked for the next day, but she said they were sold out for the whole September…
We were let down, and she asked us where we were from, then asked to see our passports. After verifying we were clueless foreigners, she told us to go to the nearby Lawson store and get our tickets there! That was so wonderful! Truth be told, GameFAQs user Tom Bombadil had told me this had happened to him, which encouraged me to go to the museum at all and try the same innocent act. If not for him, I doubt I would’ve gone at all, I’d read that you had to reserve months in advance to get a ticket. Anyway, once we were inside the gate, we could get a good look at the building, which was in a bizarre shape and covered with ivy, quite worthy of Studio Ghibli. Unfortunately, we could not take photographs inside… And inside, it was pure magic.
There were countless clever interactive exhibits, quite a few allowing you to rotate a little cinema-like machine and see a cartoon roll. There was a marvellous house with all the Ghibli movies so far, including the one that was yet to come out. When you opened its window, you could see little figures of the animators still working on it… It was so cute! There were, of course, plenty of children, and, upstairs, there was a giant cat-bus from Totoro that they could play in. There was a giant store with all kinds of Ghibli merchandise that was filled to the brim and I could hardly breathe inside… But there were lots of nice things inside. There was also a bookstore that had MUCH fewer people interested… I got a full-colour manga telling the story of my favourite movie, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. It was basically the movie in manga form, without any changes, but I was happy to get it as a wonderful memento from my visit to the museum. In typical Japanese fashion, I got the book wrapped in paper whose colour I could choose. Japanese people take good care of their books.
Other highlights of the museum were the nice rooftop garden with a huge statue of the giant robot from Laputa: Castle in the Sky, and the Saturn theatre, where we saw a Ghibli short called Yadosagashi (やどさがし), about a girl looking for a place to stay in the forest. It was really charming, with great emphasis on the sounds found in the forest, and elsewhere in life. It was full of the typical Ghibli spirit, despite only being a short movie with animation style more crude than a full Ghibli product.
My good friend Ivaylo was the first person to suggest we visited a concert in Japan. I embraced that idea, but had sadly semi-forgotten it until maybe 2 weeks before our trip. I frantically started looking for upcoming concerts on last.fm, and researching about how we could get tickets. Eventually, I chose Miwa’s concert in Tokyo that was planed for September 15th. I hadn’t listened to Miwa much at all, but checking her music on YouTube showed that she was a good option. But later on, I checked out that our sumo tickets were for the 15th, so we were probably not going to be able to make it, as concerts in Japan started early, with 6 PM being a common starting hour. I started looking for a backup option, and eventually picked an Amber Gris gig at some club. Checking them out on YouTube provided acceptable results, too. Certainly not as cool as Miwa, but it was at least something. We were to get tickets in Japan.
Interestingly, in Japan, I don’t think I saw even a single billboard or even a poster for upcoming concerts. We have tons of those here in Bulgaria, so I kind of expected to see them there, as well, and maybe find a better option that wasn’t listed on last.fm or other English sites with their help. There were only occasional posters of upcoming albums by some artists. Furthermore, I consider myself a JPop fan, and I was shocked to not see anything about the most famous – to my knowledge, at least – stars – neither Ayumi Hamasaki, nor Namie Amuro, Hitomi Shimatani or Hikaru Utada… It seems that Miwa and some girl band called AKB48 are the biggest hits on the JPop scene these days.
To my shock, once in Japan, I saw that my backup plan wouldn’t work, either. After looking at Japanese ticket sites like l-tike.com and pia.jp, as well as Amber Gris’ own site, I found out the Amber Gris concert was with invitations only, you needed to have attended some album event beforehand or something. So, I needed to find another concert. Not that hard of a task in theory, especially considering we had good internet in all hotels, even the ryokans. But the problem was we were dead tired after every single day of traversing the various towns and cities we were in. I knew we could buy tickets from machines at a convenience store like Lawson, we just had to navigate through their entirely Japanese menu, but fortunately we’d found a good guide in English how to do it.
It wasn’t until we were in the Sony building, “testing” their newest Xperia model by looking for directions to the Studio Ghibli museum, and concerts we could visit, that we found a good option – a joint gig by Vanilla Beans (バニラビーンズ), a duet of two Japanese girls singing JPop, and The Collectors, a JRock band whose style reminds of classic rock ‘n roll. Seeing as time wasn’t on our side at all – we only had 4 more days left in Japan, we embraced this opportunity and headed to a Lawson store to get tickets later that day. The struggle with the ticket machine was epic, as our ticket-buying English guide had one of the steps messed up (at step 9, you need to enter first and last names twice, with space between them – without a space, it wouldn’t let me continue). But I figured out what was wrong and finally got the tickets. Joy!
Later that day, it would become clear that Miwa’s concert had been moved to the 16th, assumingly because of the typhoon, so we could have seen it, after all. But we learned it too late, our guide told us the evening after we’d spent that afternoon at the Ghibli museum. They’d visited the Tokyo Dome City Hall, and lots of young Japanese had lined up for Miwa’s concert. I had regrets, knowing that the concert we were going to would be of much smaller scale, but there was nothing I could do.
The concert was in a place called Shinjuku Loft. It turned out to be in the basement of a huge building in Shinjuku. We had no problem finding the building, but had a little difficulty finding the place, not expecting it to be in the basement. Anyway, we didn’t take so much time as to be late for the concert. It was practically a bar with a small stage and space for some 200-300 spectators, standing-only. The organised nature of the Japanese immediately made an impression – people weren’t pushing to be closer to the stage or anything like that, simply the ones that had come first had taken their positions there, and that was it. The rest were lining up behind. We found relatively good positions, and, looking around, I saw that we were the only gaijins (foreigners) at the concert. Quite neat. The Japanese didn’t care or give us surprised looks at all, they were just focused on enjoying the show. Taking photos was forbidden.
The first to come out were The Collectors, and they played some of their best songs. “NICK! NICK! NICK!” was the one I liked best and, to get an idea, you can find it on YouTube, albeit obviously not from the exact same performance. The fascinating thing was how the audience expected the band to give them ques about how to enjoy themselves… For instance, the frontman would wave his hands in a certain way, and then the crowd would follow suit. And this was rock music. Later, during Vanilla Beans’ performance, it was even more pronounced. Another interesting thing was that the band would play a couple of songs and then stop and chat with the audience and make jokes for several minutes. Kind of like a mix between a concert and a comedy show. This was mostly true for The Collectors, seems their frontman has a bit of a comedic talent.
The second half was Vanilla Beans’, and they looked similarly as in their videos, with quite some make-up. Rena (レナ) is really beautiful, even more so in person than in the videos. Lisa (リサ) is nothing special. They had several songs I really enjoyed, Sub Call Girl Madoka (サブカルガールまどか) being my favourite. Here it is, actually from a performance at Shinjuku Loft again, but from December 2012. Anyway, these girls’ performance was where the dictated moves to the crowd really went crazy. If you’ve seen some Vanilla Beans videos, you have noticed that they make quite particular motions with their hands, as a form of choreography. They did the exact same motions in their live performance, too, and the crowd would mimic. It was quite heart-warming to watch how people enjoyed themselves around us, and we soon joined in on the fun, too! But it’s still a bit weird the Japanese need the bands to dictate them how exactly to dance and enjoy themselves. With one exception we noticed – whenever a song would enter a slow/melodic part, the crowd, actually without being urged by the band, would lift their hands up, and repeatedly slowly move them backwards towards themselves, as if to grab and embrace the melody. It was cute.
There were also pauses every couple of songs, the girls talking to the crowd and thanking us for our support. There were also some endearing Vanilla Beans mini-towels, and lots of the fans had them, using them to wipe sweat. As Rena used one on stage, I thought she’d throw it at us and chaos would ensue because the otakus would probably fight each other to get their hands on such a precious artefact… But she never did. Soon enough, Vanilla Beans were done, too, and the lights went out. But the crowd started chanting “Encore!” (or rather, “Ankoru!” :P), and, soon enough, they came back on stage.
The frontman and lead guitarist of The Collectors had also come out with them, and the two bands were going to do a joint song together. They started talking first, and, suddenly, everyone around us started taking out their phones and taking photos. We followed suit, assuming they’d given permission to the crowd to do so (and all photos you see above are obviously just from this joint song). For being representatives of such different genres, the two bands collaborated and meshed really well together, performing one of The Collectors’ songs. Vanilla Beans sang another one of their own afterwards, and that was it…
As we were leaving, there were of course all kinds of merchandise of the two bands on the way out, the goal to maximise the profit from the fans despite the already hefty ticket prices being quite clear. Anyway, we left satisfied. My wife wasn’t particularly happy about the made-up girls so many guys in the crowd were drooling at, but she still enjoyed some of their music, and certainly liked The Collectors. I didn’t regret missing Miwa to see this concert so much anymore – yes, it would have been something of a much greater scale, but there could have hardly been so much interaction with the crowd in the gigantic Tokyo Hall. And we got to see both JPop and JRock at the same concert. And even Rena’s cuteness alone made it worth it (though Miwa is also quite cute… But we would’ve likely watched her from a much bigger distance :)).
Traveling to Japan is an expensive endeavour… And you need to plan well in advance in order to spend a more acceptable amount of money. From Europe, given you book your flights several months in advance, you can fly there and back again for as little as €400-500. Of course, you need to consider transportation costs inside Japan, too. A 7-day full pass for the JR trains is 28300円, which amounts to about €210. Depending on what regions of Japan you have in mind to visit, there are also cheaper options, like the JR East Pass, or even passes for smaller regions like the JR Kanto Pass. Individual train tickets are quite expensive, but the passes make that a non-issue. Only tourists are allowed to buy those passes. Bus tickets are much less expensive. The Tokyo metro costs 150-250円 (between 1 and 2 Euro) per ride, so it’s not terribly expensive.
Regarding accomodation, budget 3-star hotels in Tokyo like Chisun Inn Asakusa will run you about €50-80 per night for a double room. Of course, booking in advance helps here, too. Outside of Tokyo, you can find even cheaper options. There are decently priced ryokans, too, so you can have a taste of the traditional Japanese lifestyle without paying a fortune. The Murayama ryokan we stayed in in Takayama is a great example.
Finally, there are the everyday expenses like food, museum tickets and souvenirs. Except for the expensive fruits and vegetables, I’d say food in the stores is around the same price, if not cheaper than in most of Western Europe. It’s even cheaper if you find a real, big supermarket, rather than using the convenience stores that are on every corner. Restaurants are also not more expensive than what I’ve seen in Europe, but some places, like the Tokyo Skytree sushi restaurant we went to, will charge outrageous prices for drinks – we paid more for a beer (over 800円) than for a small sushi set! Museum tickets and other admittance fees are generally 200-500円 (1.5-4 Euro), with some small exceptions. You can find postcards at 30-50円 apiece, and there are also convenient sets of postcards that come out even cheaper. Magnets are usually 100円, you can find good cotton kimonos for around 4000円 (€30), silk ones are more expensive, but not outrageously so. The Ghibli museum was a mere 1000円, the concert was 3000.
My very rough calculations show you can make a nice 10-day trip for around €1500 per person, which is really not that much considering how much Japan has to offer in return. If, for instance, you want to dedicate those days to just Tokyo (believe me, Tokyo can fill up 10 days), the costs drop even more, as you wouldn’t need a train pass.
Traveling in Japan was definitely one of the most wonderful experiences of my life so far. It’s almost like another world… The beautiful nature, the technology, the amazing spirituality throughout the land. So many shrines and temples, the two main religions, Shinto and Buddhism, intertwining wonderfully. The technology, the arcades still so full of people unlike in Europe… The incredibly polite people who are always there to help, as long as they can understand you. It really is so different from Europe or anywhere else.
There are some sounds from Japan that I’ll keep into my heart… The cicadas, of course, so familiar from animes I’d seen before, but it’s really something else to hear them live. Other ones I will remember are the traffic light melodies, the school bell which is so reminiscent of the boot screen for the Famicom Nekketsu games by Technos, or the “dragon’s tears” sound made by a monk slapping two wooden sticks together in a temple in Nikko with a dragon drawn on the ceiling. Of course, I’ll also not forget how people lined up before a train came, how the construction works would always happen at night and there would be people with lightsticks showing you the way around, or how some of the staff at stores and restaurants would make me feel like they were genuinely happy to have me as a customer. How people in Tokyo were always in a hurry. How life in Takayama seemed so calm and simple in contrast.
It’s definitely not all roses in Japan – Tokyo is an overcrowded hellhole sometimes, houses and apartments are insanely expensive, especially in Tokyo, and companies will expect you to barely take any time off work, much unlike the European tradition of 20+ vacation days per year. But, for a tourist, Japan is pretty close to paradise, and that’s how I’ll judge it for the time being.
I saw so much, but there is still so much more to see… Hokkaido, Okinawa, Kyushu… Among so many other magical places. And there are places I’d love to return to, too. I definitely will be back soon enough. But, until then…